This vegetable, so common today, played a role in the history of Atlantic Canada. In particular, the demise of the Lumper potato was in part in responsible for the immigration of many Irish settlers to Canada. We explore the potato's journey from South America to Europe to Canada.
When we eat potatoes today, we owe a sense of gratitude to the Incas. Wild potatoes grow in the mountains of South America, specifically the Andes of Peru and Ecuador. The wild potatoes are small and somewhat toxic. However, after generations of Inca farmers selected the larger and better tasting tubers to plant, they ended up with potatoes similar to those on our tables today.
Explorers (and/or invaders) brought potatoes from South America to Europe. At first, potatoes were novelty. Later, people recognized that the crop could produce an incredible amount of food per acre, far more than grain. Some historians suggest that the arrival of potatoes ended the frequent famines that afflicted Europe and, as such, may be partially responsible for the success of European colonization of many other parts of the world.
After 1845, however, people would never again see potatoes as a way to end famine...
Continue reading to learn about four varieties of potatoes:
The Lumper, Garnet Chili (Garnet Chile), Fundy and Shepody.
The Lumper Potato
Lumper was the potato grown throughout Ireland in the early 1880s, largely because of its ability to produce heavy yields in poor soil. The potato is one of the few foods which can sustain humans as a sole food source. In the early to mid1800s, potatoes provided the bulk of the diet of some of the rural poor in Ireland.
The dependence on one crop, and particularly one clonal variety, set the stage for the Irish famine. Unlike most other crops, potatoes are not grown from seed. Instead, tubers are cut and the pieces planted. In this way, the original potato is cloned many times over. Essentially, all potatoes of a certain variety are genetically identical (except for a very small number of mutations which occur over time). As a result, potatoes and other plants that are propagated in the same way tend to be particularly vulnerable to epidemics.
In general, the greater the genetic diversity in a crop, the more resilient the crop will be. With diverse crops, every individual plant differs slightly from the others and may have greater resistance to disease or other stress factors (e.g., drought, extreme heat or waterlogged soil). The Mayans also relied heavily on potatoes (although not to the same extents as the Irish peasants). They, however, always planted a number of types of potatoes (a landrace') at a time -- that way a disease that might affect a couple varieties wouldn't lead to a complete crop failure.
Lumper was susceptible to potato late blight (Phytophtora infestans), which destroyed about one-third of Ireland’s potato crop in 1845 and almost all of it in 1846. Potatoes rotted in the fields or in storage. The blight had catastrophic consequences, including food riots and mass death from starvation.
Did the Lumper potato cause the potato famine? The vulnerability of the potato to blight was only one part of the equation. The poverty that forced so many people to rely on potatoes for sustenance was the underlying factor leading to the famine.
More than a million people died as a result of the Irish Potato Famine, and approximately two million people emigrated to the colonies, including what is now Canada.
Crop description: Mid-late potato with lumpy white tubers.
Growing: Plant as other potatoes; can apparently thrive in wet and/or low-nutrient conditions.
Garnet Chili (or Garnet Chile)
After the Irish Potato famine, farmers and agricultural scientists recognized the need for more genetic diversity in their crops, particularly potatoes.
Plant hunters had been collecting the wild ancestors of potatoes as well as varieties cultivated in Peru. Garnet Chile was one these and many of our current varieties are descendants of this variety.
“The Reverend Chauncy E. Goodrich of Utica, New York, introduced this variety [Garnet Chile] in 1853," according to food historian and seedsaver William Woys Weaver.
"In response to the blight of 1846, [Goodrich] obtained seed stock from Chile, and from those plants he selected this small, round, pink potato that became the granddaddy of most nineteenth-century varieties we know today."
“From a culinary standpoint, Garnet Chile is an excellent boiling potato, perfect for salads, and makes an attractive garnishing potato for restaurant cookery," writes Weaver. "Best of all, unlike many small potatoes, it is an excellent keeper.”
The Fundy potato was developed through breeding trials in what is now Fundy National Park. In the 1940s, the Canadian Department of Agriculture built a potato research station west of Herring Cove. Woods were cleared for the potato breeding trial and research continued for several years after the park was established in 1948. Now, Matthews Head Trail passes by the site of the former research station and test plots.
The Fundy potato is light brown with white flesh. The potato was once common in Albert County. As one 99-year-old woman from Edgett's Landing told me, “We used to have Fundy Potatoes. They were really good potatoes. I just told my friend, ‘We can’t get good potatoes anymore, not like those good old Fundy potatoes.’”
If you eat French fries at a restaurant or fast food outlet, particularly in the spring or early summer, there's a good chance you are eating Shepody potatoes.
Like the Fundy potato, Shepody was also developed during variety trials conducted at Matthew's Head in what is now Fundy National Park.
Unlike Fundy, Shepody became a commercial success and is now grown across North America. The main use of the potatoes is for early season French fries, but the potatoes are also boiled and baked.
According to the Potato Association of North America, Shepody is "a medium-late maturing variety with above average yields and is grown primarily for frozen french fry processing. It is widely grown in eastern Canada and the northern potato areas of the U.S.
"Plants are medium sized and spreading with large medium green leaves. Leaflets are broadly ovate and overlapping. Flowers are numerous, light violet with white tips.
"Tubers are oblong to long, with a smooth to lightly netted white skin and a white flesh. Eyes are medium deep and are most prevalent on the apical end. It sets tubers late; however, they size quickly. Tubers are uniform in size and percentage over 10 ounces is high."